Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Miss Mandy! Miss Mandy! Look what we found!"

This past month, joyful cries of children have been ringing in my ears. Here at Patuxent, children in nature is a top priority and that is what I devote the majority of my time and energy to. From Nature Tots to Eagle Scouts, we cater to them all.

My experiences here have ranged from puppet shows, to Girl Scout birding workshops and Boy Scout forestry workshops, to flipping over logs in search for bugs with 5-7 year-olds, to creating honey bee crafts for hundreds, just to name a few. Although it may sound like all play and no work, teaching children to get dirty can be tricky at times.

Unlike school teachers who are assigned a single grade, Patuxent is a "one room schoolhouse." Our students vary from toddlers to old timers, but no matter what their age, they all come here hoping to learn something new. As interpreters and naturalists, we must learn how to ensure that our visitors have the best experience possible and come back yearning for more.

To complicate this equation, wildlife do not always cooperate with the interpretive programs we have in mind for our visitors. For example, rarely does a day go by on the Refuge that you do not see a Canada Goose, but for my coworker's "Silly Goose" program, the resident geese decided that they would indeed be silly and not show up at all. So what do you do when the wildlife you plan on observing is nowhere to be found? You look for evidence, in this case, scat (the technical term for goose droppings).

How about when your local bright eyed and bushy tailed squirrel residents on the refuge decide not to appear for their debut when any other day they are constantly scampering about. You look under an oak tree and search for their food source, acorns. For younger children, scat and acorns are just as exciting as the animals they are associated with, but older generations are not as easily impressed.

So, how do you keep pre-teen and teenage Girl Scouts awake on a Sunday morning for birding lectures when they'd rather be sleeping in 'til noon? If all else fails, make a fool out of yourself. Run across the room with mounted birds pretending they are swooping through the air in search for a bite to eat and you are guaranteed to get their attention or at least crack a smile.  

As the Scout motto says, "be prepared." Cram your brain with as much random and interesting facts as possible, because you never know when that knowledge may come in handy. This is especially true as a tram tour interpreter. Unlike a zoo, wildilfe on the Refuge are not kept in cages. They are in their natural habitat and appear at random. Also, unlike your average guided tour, there are no specific stops along the way during a Patuxent Research Refuge tram tour. You have to make due with what comes along and sometimes that isn't much. That's when creativity is key.

These are skills that come with patience and practice which is exactly what I am working towards. I've rambled through the Wildlife Refuge System both on foot and on wheels. I've crawled through crevices in the Devil's Ice Box Cave at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park as a volunteer interpreter. I've grasped the attention of young and old and have been stumped by those half my age and those double my age more than a time or two. No matter how many times I travel the same path, I learn a new lesson with each hike I lead.

Nothing beats seeing the faces of children light up when they've cornered a frog, captured a flying insect in a net, gazed at bald eagle soaring above through binoculars for the first time, or opened their eyes to the mushrooms covering the forest floor. No matter how old you are the wonders of wildlife never cease to amaze us and I am fortunate enough to get the chance to help people discover the beauty of nature each and every day.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sketching the Seasons

"Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend stretches of time just searching and dreaming." - Edward O.Wilson, Naturalist
During one of my last days at Minnesota Valley, I was helping my supervisor, Judy, sort through some new shipments that came in of books and videos to add to the resource library. While doing so, I stumbled across this book called "Keeping a Nature Journal" by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth. I started flipping through the pages and found myself unable to put the book down. Lucky for me, a copy of the book was available in the Blufftop Bookshop.

Ever since I can remember, I've always kept a journal, but no one had really ever gave me any guidance as to how to use it. Like a typical child, I spilled out my feelings then ripped out the pages when I thought my mom had read them from time to time. I regret that I didn't keep all of them together so I could refer back to them later. I've gotten better as I've gotten older, but how I wish that someone would have told me when I was a little girl off exploring in the woods and climbing trees that there was a way for me to capture all of those precious moments in a book that I could keep with me always.

Unlike my recently passed grandmother who held dearly to all of her written memories from childhood to adulthood which are now compiled in her book "From Georgia Peach, To Missouri Mule," my memoirs are scattered about here and there or worse, forgotten all together. Luckily, there's still time for me to get my act together and keep it all in one central location, a nature journal.

The summer after my junior year in high school, I was accepted into a weeklong Conservation Honors Program at the University of Missouri in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Conservation. This program first introduced me to nature journaling and was one of the biggest turning points in my life, ultimately leading me down the path of becoming the naturalist I was born to be.

My dad has fond memories of me as a child packing up my bookbag and heading out into the woods, not to return until hours later. We lived in a fairly rural area so I didn't have the luxury of neighborhood kids to play with and my sister, 3 and a half years older than I, had a lot of other things on her plate like sports, gymnastics, and dance. The woods and fields behind our house was my playground and the neighborhood dogs and cats and eventually my 4-H bunnies were my friends. I remember doing a lot of writing and drawing, but where all of those ammature sketches ended up is a mystery.

The Conservation Honors Program was the first time I was formally introduced to nature journaling. We were each given a small, unlined, spiral bound notebook called "Nature Notes" produced by MDC. We were responsible for recording all of our field observations in the notebook, just like real biologists, and were also given journal assignments each night reflecting our readings from Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac." I still have the notebook today, but haven't done much with it since, because I didn't fully understand the concept of nature journaling until now.

Nature journals are not meant to be formal as ours were during Conservation Honors Program. They are also not meant to be kept like a personal diary. Nature journals are a tool for channeling your interpretation of the natural world around you and developing your sense of place in that environment. There is no structure that you must follow, no critiquing by others, no grades. They are for your own personal use, to help enhance the view of your everyday surroundings and intensify the beauty of the simplest to the most beautiful places and life on earth.

As I explore this new concept, I am also exploring a new place. A week ago, I set out on yet another journey to my next assignment as an environmental education/interpretation intern at the Patuxent Research Refuge National Wildlife Visitor Center in Laurel, MD. They call this area the golden triangle, because it sits smack dab in the middle of Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Annapolis. And boy, has it been a trip so far.

My dad is originally from Alexandria, VA, right outside of D.C. so he joined me on my relocation back to his roots. We were delayed at first by both an earthquake and hurricane Irene that hit the east coast, but we finally made it, safe and sound -- despite the current monsoon-like rain I'm currently experiencing. Unlike Minnesota, I have family close by that I never get to see and am finally able to spend some time with. So far I've gotten to see both my uncle David, who is my dad's identical twin, and my cousin Kristy, one of my uncle's daughters. I've experienced traffic, the metro, and the solitude of the Refuge in the heart of it all.

Patuxent is different from other refuges due to the fact that it has "research" in its title. It was established in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and is the only research refuge in the entire refuge system. Important findings on DDT were discovered here, dwindling populations of whooping cranes were brought back from extinction, and much, much more! The visitor center is also different from other refuges because it is a National Wildlife Visitor Center. So instead of just local environmental issues and happenings, exhibits in the NWVC feature both nation wide and world wide concerns and habitats. Also, like Minnesota Valley, Patuxent is one of the few urban refuges within the Refuge System which means tons of visitors, events, and school groups are constantly coming and going.

Interns are heavily relied on in the visitor services program and I was put right to work as soon as I arrived. By the end of my second day, I had already put on two puppet shows with another intern about a migrating Ruby Throated Hummingbird and the animals she meets on her journey south for the winter. Both my coworker and I are responsible for putting on two programs each month, opening and closing the VC, registering visitors for all programs, helping out at events like Honey Harvest Festival and our 5k coming up next weekend. We also host scout groups and fill in wherever else we are needed. Eventually, we'll even be responsible for giving tours on the all electric tram that rides through the Refuge.

Thanks to my new found hobby of nature journaling, I will be putting on a program in October called "Sketching the Seasons" for 8-10-year-old children. It's all been very exciting so far and I am looking forward to the upcoming events. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, I keep my nature notes by my side to remind me that no matter what, there is always time to sit down and sketch the seasons.